By Clayton Ambrose
Montana born director, David Lynch, has made a name for himself over the past three or so decades by pushing the visual limits of film, making use of abstract and often terrifying visuals in his works to communicate ideas and concepts. An aspect of his craft that I find to be underrated, however, is his impeccable use of music to convey the messages and themes of his art. Because his narratives can be hard to follow, I believe that his choice of music plays a central part in ensuring that the moods or themes that he is trying to convey in a given scene reach the audience, whether the music is an element of the plot or if it is meant to create a certain emotional reaction within the viewer.
One of Lynch’s first works to include his musical storytelling is his 1979 feature length debut, Eraserhead. To put a complicated and conceptual plot into simple terms, Eraserhead is about the anxieties of parenthood, the turbulence of which is reflected in its noisy and eerie score. At a certain point in the film, we are introduced to The Lady in the Radiator who manifests in a vision to protagonist Henry in a pure white gown and sings “In Heaven”, a song written by Lynch that includes the lyrics, “In Heaven, everything is fine”. This song is starkly contrasted with the prevailing musical motifs of the film, making the implication that Henry sees a sort of safe haven within this fantasy, a visual and auditory manifestation of hope whose true symbolism lies anywhere between Henry’s last shred of optimism and Henry’s desire for death as a means of releasing himself from his parental hell.
A similar instance occurs in Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Dr., albeit on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Mulholland Dr. is essentially a film of two parts: the first of which being a dream that Naomi Watts’ character, Diane, has created where an alternate version of herself named Betty finds success in Hollywood and with her girlfriend Camilla (named Rita in the fantasy), and the second part being the reality where Camilla has left her and her life is in disarray. A pivotal sequence connecting these two halves transpires at the mysterious Club Silencio, a theater that Betty and Rita attend in the middle of the night at Rita’s panicked request. After a relevant introduction pertaining to illusions, singer Rebekah Del Rio performs an acapella rendition of Roy Orbison’s song “Crying”, which solicits a reaction of terror and sorrow out of the two listeners. The song itself is pretty typical break-up fare, with lyrics like “I thought I was over you/But it’s true, so true/I love you even more/Than I did before”, but within the film’s context the song becomes the key to an essential part of the narrative: the waking of Diane from her fantasy. This performance, sung in Spanish as a reflection of Camilla’s ethnicity outside the delusion, comes just after the exact point where Diane’s fiction has become the antithesis of her reality as her relationship and acting career are precisely where she wants them to be. The song reminds Diane that all of that happiness is an illusion, causing the walls of the façade to come crumbling down and forcing Diane to return to her miserable life.
One of Lynch’s most jarring and thematically-relevant uses of music comes from his 1986 film Blue Velvet. The film follows protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont as he descends into a criminal underworld full of kidnapping, murder, and deviant sexuality that lay just beyond a pristine suburban world. In displaying this juxtaposition, Blue Velvet explores the idea of things that could being considered pure and good being perverted through contact with this other world, specifically regarding Beaumont and his continuous interaction with it. Lynch conveys this idea multiple ways visually, but musically he makes use of another Roy Orbison pop song, “In Dreams”. At one point in the film, antagonist Frank Booth and his cronies drive Beaumont out to a lumberyard and viciously beat Beaumont for becoming involved with Dorothy Vallens, a nightclub singer whose husband and child Booth has kidnapped in order to turn Vallens into a slave of sorts. Before he begins the assault, however, Booth ensures that “In Dreams” is blasting on the car radio (or “Candy Colored Clown” as he refers to it). The music crescendos as Booth lays blow after blow into Beaumont’s guts, turning a once harmless pop into something more sinister, something that, within the context of the film, becomes inseparable from the chaotic evil of Frank Booth. Purity and innocence are unsustainable in his twisted world, which is a concept that Beaumont becomes familiar with as he wrestles with his own latent demons during the events of the film. In the end, good triumphs over evil, but just as “In Dreams” becomes associated with the wicked Booth, Beaumont can never truly be separated from his morbid experiences and the darker side of himself that he has discovered in the process.
Of course, not all of Lynch’s musical cues are used to signify a greater thematic meaning: sometimes it’s used to create pure and palpable atmosphere. This can be seen in Angelo Badalamenti’s score for David Lynch and Mark Frost’s television series Twin Peaks and it’s prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. While the original series is a murder mystery at its heart, a defining trait of the show is how it functions much more like a soap opera than a hard-boiled detective mystery, with domestic drama, romance, and convoluted schemes often appearing at the forefront of many of the shows plotlines. This tone is achieved due in part to its score. Emotional moments are accompanied by an abundance of synthesizers and heartfelt piano while jazzy, lounge-type music often soundtracks the young men of the show during their various confrontations with each other, akin to something you might find in West Side Story. It’s all quite cheesy and often goofy but it fits the general atmosphere of the show perfectly because, simply put, Twin Peaks is a goofy town. The music fits so superbly that it almost feels like the score was created by the show and, by extension, the town itself. Underneath this seemingly on-the-nose music is a level of dissonance, however, because Twin Peaks does deal with a certain level of dark subject matter, like the murder of teenager Laura Palmer that the show owes its central plot to.
This tragic content is touched on more in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which shows Laura Palmer’s troubled life leading up to her murder, employing a significantly darker mood than the main series and bringing a much different musical feeling along with it. One scene in particular that uses this music effectively is Laura and her friend Donna’s night within the seedy and mysterious Pink Room. The score for this scene, a song aptly titled “The Pink Room”, is a slow, grueling lounge rock track played to a volume level close to sonic suffocation, even drowning out the character’s voices to the point where subtitles are put on the screen in order to understand their dialogue. What the score in this scene accomplishes is conveying the sheer weight of this environment that Palmer often finds herself in. Her situation isn’t just unfortunate and disturbing, it’s oppressive. Palmer carries the sole burden of her torment on her shoulders, creating a smothering environment that has slowly but surely begun to envelop every aspect of her life. The visceral experience that the viewer feels during the film’s duration in the Pink Room is the sensation that Laura Palmer deals with every waking moment until her death.
David Lynch is most certainly not the first to use music in effective and interesting ways in the medium of film, nor will he be the last, but I submit that he is definitely one of the most interesting directors of sound in his creations. Each of his works has its special way of communicating themes and ideas through music that, while possibly difficult to decipher on the surface, fit the context perfectly and add even more to the already rich text of the narrative. Lynch is a master at getting pure emotional reactions out of his viewers while leaving said viewer to decipher how he was able to extract those emotions in the first place, and I think a lot that is owed to his musical choices and the way that they, subliminally or consciously, burrow their way into your brain allow you to make connections and insights that lead to a greater understanding of the work.